May 08, 2008
Laaadieees and gentlemen:
In this corner, weighing in on the side of goodness and light: A.J. Jacobs, editor-at-large for Esquire Magazine and author of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (Simon and Schuster).
And in this corner, representing, hmmm, is it Satan? Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me and author of The Book Of Vice: Very Naughty Things (And How To Do Them) (Harper Collins).
The two “combatants” have much in common: Both are married with three children (boys for Jacobs, girls for Sagal). Sagal is a Harvard graduate, while Jacobs wrote The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. In addition, Jacobs’ wife, Julie Watson, was a friend of Sagal’s growing up in Berkeley Heights.
Their subject matter is not as cut and dried as it might seem. Certain aspects of the Bible might strike some as barbaric and immoral, while a little vice can be nice. Ironically, Jacobs works for Esquire, a publication known for worldly themes, while Sagal hosts a humorous intellectual radio news quiz show. They would seem to be operating outside of their professional comfort zones.
“Interesting thought, I like it,” said Sagal in a conference call with Jacobs and NJ Jewish News from his home in Chicago, where WWDTM is produced.
Jacobs: So you’re saying NPR is more moral than Esquire?
Sagal: Well, we have a lot fewer women with lingerie on our covers.
Both writers refer often in their work to their religious background.
Jacobs: It was a huge part of it for me. I had no religion growing up; I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. But the main point of the book was to see what I was missing. That was why I decided to immerse myself in the Bible. I hung out with Hasidic Jews and rabbis for the first time in my life. It was fascinating.
We considered having Rabbi Douglas Sagal of Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in Westfield and Peter’s brother, moderate the discussion, but we thought it might give someone an unfair advantage — although we weren’t quite sure whom. When it was pointed out that Jacobs could have consulted Rabbi Sagal for his research …
Sagal: You might not have gotten the frumishe experience you were looking for.
Jacobs: I enjoyed reading your book, by the way.
Sagal (apologetically): Thank you. I’m not even going to lie and say I’ve read yours.
Jacobs: That’s okay. Biblical honesty is very important.
Jacobs followed the requirement not to cut his hair or shave for the duration of his project, taking on a Ted Kaczynski appearance — “I spent a lot of time at airport security.” — and was thereby unable to hide his identity. Sagal, on the other hand, could have made a secret of his identity, but chose not to.
Sagal: I did not put on a white suit, but I absolutely did not put on any airs of expertise which I did not have [in the various subject matters] on the assumption that people would be willing to explain things to me if I didn’t try to hide my ignorance. I basically went around dressed the way I dress, like a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs. And it seemed to work out pretty well.
Vice covers pornography, gambling, and food consumption, among other topics.
Sagal: Just stuff I was curious about. Like the chapter on lying; I’m a really bad liar and I’m really fascinated by people who are good at it.
Jacobs, on the other hand, was scrupulous in his honesty, to the dismay of his family, friends, and co-workers. Had he encountered Sagal in the latter stages of his research, Jacobs, who literally stoned an adulterer (albeit with pebbles), might have had a dilemma on his hands.
Jacobs: [Sagal] went to a swingers’ party, but he was there more as an anthropologist, so I don’t know whether I would have to stone him for watching other people’s sins. I would rebuke him for not rebuking them.
Sagal: Really? So there’s a moral obligation, according to our ancient laws, that I needed to rebuke the people I was with?
Jacobs: Absolutely. That’s where you failed. But some of the things you talk about as vices are not in the Bible as being vices. The Bible has many, many pro-drinking passages. Wine is a gift from God….You don’t want to do so much drinking you pass out naked, as did Noah; that can get into uncomfortable situations. But moderate drinking, there’s nothing wrong with that, according to the Bible.
Sagal: There is this idea — maybe more of a Puritan idea than a Jewish idea, as A.J. just said — that overindulgence of any appetite is a vice. There are people starving in China and you’re paying $700 for a meal. These days overindulgence in food is seen as the national vice. What’s wrong with Americans! We’re too fat…. We’re stuffing our faces with Twinkies!
[That’s] one of our great vices: we have too much stuff [and] we worry about accumulating more stuff.
Do good…or else!
If there was no fear of heavenly retribution, would most people lean towards the righteous or the wicked?
Jacobs: There is something selfish about acting good. Acting good makes you feel good. When you give to charity there are chemicals in the brain which give you a pleasurable sensation. Hopefully that would outweigh the desire to commit vices.
Sagal: These people are pursuing their own pleasures with an energy and ambition that I can’t help but admire. Ultimately, there is little difference between the master chef who just wants to create the perfect meal to please others and the adult film star who wishes to do the same through her talents.
Jacobs: As a secular guy for most of my life, I had rarely seen the joyous side of religion. I only saw the guilt, the rebuking. During my year I definitely got a taste of the other side, how religion can be a portal to complete joy.
Both men praised their wives for their support during these ostensibly trying times.
Sagal: My initial instinct is to be funny. Beth’s instinct is to be kind. A lot of times she would suggest I was trying too hard to make a joke and come across as overly harsh in that pursuit, which helped me in the editing process.
Jacobs: I had the same experience as Peter. I have a lot of e-mails saying Julie was a saint.
What was the favorite part of their project?
Jacobs: Visiting the various communities where I would embed myself — including Hasidic Jews, Evangelical Christians, and the Amish — and seeing all my preconceived stereotypes fall away. I think I’m the first person to out Bible-talk a Jehovah’s Witness. I invited him in and after three and a half hours he looked at his watch as said "I’ve got to go. I can’t take this any more."
Sagal: What’s weird is I have almost the same answer. It was meeting these people. There was a dinner party Beth and I attended with three porn stars. It was so much fun to get to know these women who had such vastly different experiences than we’ve had. These were articulate, interesting, strong women who had made very particular choices and were willing to talk about those choices.
Jacobs: There were two difficult parts: the first was trying to follow the laws about avoiding the little sins. I was able to do a year without killing anyone pretty easily. It was not gossiping, not coveting, not lying. I live in New York and work in the media, so that’s pretty much the bulk of my day. But I loved that attempt to do a moral makeover.
Sagal: I’ve been reading a fair amount of the new atheists and they are of an opinion that such religious constraints are utterly bats--t. Having tried to follow all those laws, are they in fact in your view crazy and arbitrary, or by living them have you found an inherent meaning that isn’t apparent to those of us who just read about them and scoff?
Jacobs: I’ve read many of these books. I share their views [against] fundamentalism, and part of the reason in writing this book was to show a way to approach the Bible. But I also found it incredibly complicated and amazing. Yes, [some of the laws] are on the surface crazy, but when I was enacting [them], they took on meaning.
Sagal: A.J.’s background as a secular Jew inspired his book, and in a weird way, so did mine. It goes back to the rebuking thing. I love that it’s formally part of our tradition. Jewish kids growing up in the suburbs in ambitious upper-middle class backgrounds were supposed to, more than anything, behave.
Just as A.J. went out to find people who behave differently than he did, I did the same thing. To the extent that A.J. was rebelling against his secular cultural non-religious upbringing, I was rebelling against my secular obedient upbringing.
While Sagal kept the subject matter of his book a secret from his parents, he discussed it with his brother, the rabbi.
Sagal: In a weird way it gave me some encouragement. [His] reaction was that most of us are leading traditional monogamous lives, married or not. The fact that he was interested and not condemnatory of me in talking about it, made me think that there are people out there who feel the same way. It was a lot less weird for me to write a book like this than other members of the NPR staff. No one said, “shame on you.”
Jacobs: That was probably the most surprising thing. I expected it to be somewhat controversial, but I didn’t get much flak at all. I’m not 100 percent sure why; I think it’s because I went in with an open mind and I try to portray that in the book and I didn’t mock anyone. This is probably non-biblical boasting, so please forgive me.
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